The elephant in the gigabit network room

Getting to gigabit networks isn’t a cheap proposition, and once they are deployed, they generally cost more than the average person can afford. For example, a gigabit connection in Chattanooga, Tenn. one of several towns offering such a service costs more than $300 a month. Even if one can’t get a gig, even a 100 Mbps connection or so can cost about $120 or so. Which means that for most broadband supporters, even ardent ones such as myself, the elephant in the room is: Why spend that much, when for today’s applications, a cable modem offering 12-14 Mbps down will do just fine?

It’s a question that analysts posed of Verizon(s vz), when they pressed the company that deployed the nation’s largest fiber-to-home network, about take-up rates and boosting subscribers for FiOS. It’s a question Google seeks to answer with its own plans to build out a gigabit network in Kansas City, Kan. and Kansas City, Mo. And it’s also a question we need to focus more on even as the siren song of mobile connectivity and apps tempts developers to think smaller.

“It’s ironic that the app that is having the most effect and making a big difference is Twitter, which is the most narrow band application imaginable,” says Dane Jasper, CEO of Sonic.Net. “Something similar has to occur in broadband as it gets faster and faster and it gets more ubiquitous.”

Jasper’s ISP is overlaying fiber to the home in Sebastopol, Calif. where it already deployed an ADSL2 network. Subscribers can pay $40 a month for wireline voice and 100 Mbps FTTH broadband, or they can pay $70 for two lines and get a gigabit. Those seem more like the economics that Google is looking for when it sells its network, but until later this year when it should announce pricing, we’re still unsure what it plans to offer.

But tests from Jasper’s initial deployment speak to some problems the industry will need to overcome if we want gigabit networks to become the norm. For starters, there’s the equipment. Computers today aren’t geared up to support gigabit connections and current Wi-Fi networks couldn’t offer those speeds either. Jasper says the first trial of the gigabit network was a speed test on a generic laptop that showed off 420 Mbps down; the laptop couldn’t handle a full gig.

That’s fine, because there aren’t that many applications that need those speeds. Perhaps the most compelling use case I can think if right now is if you wanted to subscribe to a new online backup service and upload your images, music and movies all at once. A gigabit could help you complete the task in minutes as opposed to hours or days. But that’s a one-time kind of benefit — consumers will need everyday benefits if they are going to upgrade their broadband. Yet, network operators have a hard time justifying an investment in a network that will get few subscribers and application developers have little incentive to develop programs for the few on gigabit networks.

So we’re stuck at a point where a gigabit — or even 100 Mbps – sounds awesome, but it’s not exactly worth the prices most companies want (or need to charge). This is why Google’s and Sonic.Net’s plans to expand moderately priced 100 Mbps and gigabit networks will be so important.

“If every consumer has 100 Mbps, we’d have some better applications,” Jasper said. ” At 100 Mbps, high-def video conferencing becomes a reality and you don’t need local storage anymore. You don’t even need local computing.” He pointed me to this awesome video as an example of what might happen, ya’ know, just in case anybody wants to build those next-generation applications.